In an apparent effort to distract attention from the fact that she went all James Frey over her 1996 trip to Bosnia, Hilary Clinton has belatedly decided to criticize Barack Obama for comments made by his long-time pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Senator Clinton says that if Rev. Wright had been her pastor, she would have broken her ties with him and with Trinity United Church of Christ. She would have found another church to attend.
I suspect that there are many of us who, since 2000, have wanted to become citizens of another country because we haven't approved of the words or actions of our current President. But I also suspect that most of us realize that George W. Bush does not represent the opinions of every citizen of this country. I suspect that many of us, as I do, love our neighbors, our local communities, and America itself. We protest that President Bush does not speak for us, but we don't pack up and move to Canada.
I suspect that Senator Obama is in the same position in his church. The community is important to him. It has been a source of inspiration and support. To criticize him for remaining a part of that faith community when he disagrees with statements made in a sermon is also to misunderstand the nature of the United Church of Christ. Here is how the U.C.C. describes itself:
The UCC has roots in the "covenantal" tradition—meaning there is no centralized authority or hierarchy that can impose any doctrine or form of worship on its members. Christ alone is Head of the church. We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the apostolic faith.
What this means in practice is that a U.C.C. congregation is a diverse set of people who think for themselves, who are certainly not required to agree with everything spoken from the pulpit, but who nonetheless listen hard for the authentic voice of the Gospel and who commit themselves to acting upon a vision of peace and social justice inspired by Christ's fundamental message of love. Rev. Wright's controversial sermons spoke words of hate, and Senator Obama has rightly repudiated that message of hatred.
The last time I gave a sermon at the First U.C.C. in Northfield, a highly respected member of the congregation came up to me and said, bluntly, "You were wrong." You have to expect that in the United Church of Christ. It's full of people who are listening carefully, weighing the words from the pulpit in their own hearts and minds. Senator Obama did the right thing. He took the opportunity to answer his pastor's words of hate with more powerful words of understanding and reconciliation. He didn't, as Senator Clinton would have him do, abandon his community because it was flawed. Instead, he spoke about his dreams—our dreams—of making things better.
My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .
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